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‘Apple and Knife’: a riot of unruly women

By Emily Bitto
A collection of playful and provocative short stories by Intan Paramaditha

In her author acknowledgments, Intan Paramaditha thanks “the first disobedient woman” – her mother – who “inspired many of [her] early stories”. Apple and Knife is a riot of disobedient women, including vengeful, neglected wives, prostitutes and saucy dancers, a village abortionist shunned as a witch, and a host of more supernatural, randy and ravenous devil-women.

Apple and Knife is the Indonesian author’s first short story collection to be translated into English, and its mode, in both form and content, is a kind of Frankensteinian, gruesome and unruly hybridity. The first story, “The Blind Woman Without a Toe”, establishes the terrain: it is a re-telling of the Cinderella story, transposed onto an Indonesian setting (Cinderella is now Sindelarat), and told from the perspective of one of the “evil stepsisters”, now a blind, vagrant old woman. In this version Sindelarat is no innocent, and gains her advantage over her sisters through a pact with dark forces and the exploitation of her superior beauty. “When in competition,” the narrator tells us, “women need to eliminate rivals and be unsparing in their hatred.” In the end, of course, no one wins, and Sindelarat spends the remainder of her short life pregnant, trying to produce a male heir to the throne.

The revisionist project of “feminist fairy tales” is certainly not a new one, and has been taken up with varying degrees of subtlety or didacticism since at least 1979, when Angela Carter’s The Bloody Chamber was first published in the UK. Fortunately, this cultural heritage is handled lightly, and mostly in a peripheral fashion, across the rest of Apple and Knife, allowing space for the more compelling components of traditional Indonesian mythology, B-grade horror, contemporary Indonesian politics and international pop culture that makes this collection both original and highly entertaining. These motley elements are roughly shaken and viewed through the lens of Paramaditha’s playful but provocative kaleidoscopic vision. The outcome is a camp, schlocky supernatural romp with a darker political heart.

In “Blood”, a young woman who works in advertising struggles to come up with a campaign for sanitary pads. She is visited by a menstrual blood-eating spirit from her past, leading her to quit the agency because she doesn’t want “to treat blood as an enemy”. In “The Obsessive Twist”, a voluptuous singer in a popular dangdut band seeks revenge after being driven out of town for her “corrupting” influence. The strongest story in the collection, “Kuchuk Hanem”, describes Gustave Flaubert and Maxime Du Camp’s visit to a legendary Egyptian prostitute, and offers a tongue-in-cheek lesson in how history has distinguished between unconventional men and unconventional women.

These stories playfully celebrate the disruptive power of transgressive femininity. However, they also remind the reader that the inherited tropes of the fairy tale – which link women, on the one hand, with darkness, the body, submission, and a kind of dangerous sexuality, and men, on the other, with light, culture, power and the rational mind – still exert a strong influence on contemporary ideas about gender. A case in point: in “The Queen”, we are told that the rich young “prince” subscribed to “the values of feudal patriarchy, updated. He considered the attributes of a modern knight to be the latest car (instead of a handsome steed), money from his old man to fund a start-up (instead of inherited land) and slim girls in shapewear (instead of virgins in corsets).”

Although these contemporary horror stories draw heavily on myth, they are far from didactic. Sometimes, the heroine gets her revenge against a predatory boss, oppressive father, or cheating husband. Just as often, the narratives offer little closure, and the characters are left to make their way alone in a frightening and comfortless world. It’s a world that differs from “the real” because of the active presence of demons and spirits, but that is still a familiar place, in which women’s bodies are too often seen as abject and their sexuality dangerous and necessitating systems of tight control. The stories in Apple and Knife are raw, fun, excessive, and told with a wink, but they are underlaid with an unsettling awareness of the common fate of “disobedient women”.

Emily Bitto

Emily Bitto is a Melbourne-based writer of fiction, nonfiction and poetry. Her debut novel, The Strays, was the winner of the 2015 Stella Prize.

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